Published in the Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi on 15 July 2012
THE OTHER JIM CORBETT
Jim Corbett had a lot in common with Verrier Elwin, one of the greatest champions of
India’s tribal people, and Sálim
Ali, the celebrated ornithologist. They all loved wilderness. The triumvirate championed conserving natural habitats and
wildlife, protecting forest communities, reducing human-animal conflict and
promoting eco-friendly practices decades before these issues entered the public
domain. The first
wildlife reserve of India, extending over an area of more than 500 sq km in the
Himalayan foothills, in the state of Uttaranchal, was rechristened Jim Corbett
National Park in 1956 in honour of the legendary hunter-turned-
Jim Corbett's stories of his hunt of man-eaters, mostly self narrated, are established classics and have thrilled generations of young and old. His Man-eaters of Kumaon has undergone several reprints. For his daring and hunting skills he became a legend in his life time. But to typecast him as a man with a hunting rifle does not do justice to his persona which was far more encompassing. His compassion and charitable disposition, his close bond with nature and his philosophy behind killing the carnivores need to be understood and highlighted. His bread and butter did not come from hunting but from a totally unrelated activity.
Born a Postmaster’s son at Nainital Jim Corbett (25 July 1875–19 April 1955) spent his growing up summers at Gurni House in the lower reaches of Nainital and winters at Kaladhungi in the tarai jungles of Kumaon. This made him passionate about the flora and fauna around him. With his older brother Tom as his teacher he became adept at training a gun at his target quite early on. For many years hunting to him remained a mere sport. Years later, a shikar party led by him downed hundreds of water fowls in a lake. The sight of this mindless carnage shocked him. The revulsion he felt resulted in a change of heart, not unlike Ashoka after the Kalinga war. Thereafter he developed a philosophical attitude to hunting. He realized that the tiger, or leopard for that matter, was lord of the jungle and must have its dues. The villagers could not plead their losses in cattle and goats. The carnivore at all events was immune, unless it was killing human beings, not by chance or in anger but because it sought them as food. Only when it turned into a Man-eater would Corbett agree to kill it. These marauders had become such a terror in Kumaon and Garhwal region and so many human lives had been lost to them that he could not shirk his obligation to eliminate them. Shooting had to be effective so that the animal did not suffer needless agony. Corbett shot several man-eaters and people looked upon him as their savior.
Jim Corbett was born into a large but not a rich family. He went straight from school to take up a job as a Fuel Inspector with the railway. For a year and a half he lived in the forest cutting five hundred thousand cubic feet of timber, to be used as fuel in locomotives. After the trees had been felled and billeted, each billet not more and not less than thirty-six inches long, the fuel was carted ten miles (sixteen kilometers) to the nearest point of the railway, where it was stacked and measured and then loaded into fuel trains and taken to the stations where it was needed. Suddenly he found that his services would no longer be required, for the locomotives had been converted to coal-burning and no more wood fuel would be needed.
Feeling dejected he proceeded to Samastipur in
North Bihar to render account to the Head of the
Department he had been working for. The journey lasted for thirty-six hours
with the train stopping for breakfast, lunch,
and dinner. He had all but given up hope when out of the blue came orders
posting him to
Mokameh Ghat in Bihar as Trans-shipment
Inspector on enhanced pay. That he was also to take over the labour contract for handling goods came as a
bonus. More than half a
million tons of traffic were ferried across river Ganges every year, and had to
be transshipped from one gauge of rails to another, meter gauge north of the
Ganges and broad gauge to the south. Now of course there is a long bridge
spanning the river and it is broad gauge all the way.
Back then the conditions of work were exceptionally arduous, and that Corbett carried it on for over twenty years was due not only to his power of physical endurance, but to his friendly personal contacts with the large force of Indian labour which he employed as contractor. They gave an unmistakable proof of their own feelings for him during the First World War when he had taken the Kumaon Labour Corps to
It was then that his Indian subordinates at Mokameh Ghat arranged with the
labourers that they would together carry on the work on his behalf throughout
his absence which was until the end of the war.
Once when labourers could not be paid on time and were facing starvation Corbett too missed his meal or subsisted on a single chapati. The story of Lalajee has made it into school text books. Lalajee was once a prosperous grain merchant who became penniless after being cheated by his partner. Without any hope in life, he took the train, got off at Mokameh Ghat stricken with cholera, went to the bank of the
Ganges waiting to die. Corbett carried him
to his bungalow and nursed him back to health. He later sent Lalajee away with a pep talk and
four hundred and fifty rupees, which in 1898 was Corbett’s salary for 3 months,
to start a new life of hope. Budhu’s story is not much different. He was forced
to work as a slave by a greedy landowner, because his grandfather had borrowed
one rupee from him. The amount with interest had now climbed to several
hundred, and with the help of a lawyer, Corbett paid the landowner, and
released Budhu. He called Budhu in his office, gave the papers of his release.
He took out a match and asked Budhu to hold the paper while he set it on fire.
’’Don’t burn these papers sahib’’ Budhu pleaded ’’I am your slave now’’.
Corbett told him that he was nobody’s slave, but a free man.
Corbett’s ambivalence towards Sultana Daku,
’s notorious bandit who
operated in and around Kumaon, was typical of the man. Initially he helped the
U.P. police officer Freddy Young in trailing the dacoit. When he found out that
Sultana was not a mere bandit but a Robin Hood who robbed the rich to help the
poor, he developed a soft corner for him. He felt sorry when Sultana was
eventually captured and condemned the authorities who publicly humiliated him
before being hanged. India
His book My Story, which is more in the nature of autobiography, informs us about his life at Mokameh Ghat, as also before and after. The reader cannot remain unimpressed by his saint like benevolence and genuine concern for Indians he befriended without any reservation. Whether it was ridding Kumaon villagers of man-eaters or providing elementary medical care he was always there for them, even rushing from his work place at Mokameh Ghat on receipt of an urgent telegram. He bought vast stretches of land, built houses and gave them to the poor, paid taxes on them, helped them to create orchards in the property and making it a model village. Today the entire area is known as Corbett Walk and is a tourist attraction. It begins on the Ayarpatta hill which is where almost all the houses Jim Corbett owned are located and on the Deopatta, where most buildings identified with Corbett still exist.
Age was catching up with him and he was not keeping too well. He resigned and left Mokameh Ghat in 1920. For the next twenty-four years he served as an elected member of the Nainital Municipal Board. He canalized his fascination for jungle life to the study of flora and fauna. Camera replaced the rifle. He relocated to
in 1947. It could not have
been an easy decision for him to make. He loved Kumaon as much as people adored
him. But Kenya
could at all events minister to his passion for photographing wild life, and he
was able to indulge it to the full until his death. He left behind armloads of
rare photographs some of which had been taken at grave personal risk.
Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police,
Bihar and a freelance writer.)